Boris Johnson has only just moved into 10 Downing Street, yet he’s already bigging-up genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and speaking out against their regulation - first in his address to the nation as PM and again in his Commons address.
The kind of “free trade” deals championed by Johnson and his US counterpart, Donald Trump, will make it easier to export GMOs, protect the intellectual property rights of giant corporations, and lower health and safety standards for consumers.
The biotech industry, including GMOs, has continued to grow since the 1970s, when plant and animal genes were spliced to create hybrids and human genes patented for profit. The British public’s attitude toward GMOs has been one of caution.
In 1999, it was reported that Britain’s Parliamentary catering committee, led by Dennis Turner MP, banned GM foods from the canteens. At the same time, Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the public to eat GMOs.
In the same year, Monsanto (now Bayer) confirmed to Friends of the Earth that it had removed all GM products from its own cafeteria at a pharmaceuticals factory in Buckinghamshire because it “believes in choice” (spokesperson, Tony Coombes).
The industry doesn’t seem to believe in choice for consumers, when it sells GM feedstock to farmers, who then sell meat products to the public without notifying them that the animals have been fed with modified organisms.
By the turn of the millennium, the GM industry was worth $2.3bn, with 100 million acres of GM crops grown worldwide.
The industry has contracted lately, with the growth of the organic food market and consumer preferences for non-GMOs. This has forced the GMO industry to disguise its products by selling to farmers, who use GM as feedstock.
In addition to GMOs in animal feed, processed foods “contain varying amounts of GM ingredients,” PBS reported in 1999, because companies use different GM ingredients at different points in the production cycle.
Today, GMOs are everywhere. Globally, there are approximately 160 million hectares (mh) of genetically modified crops. These include alfalfa, beet, canola, corn, cotton, maize, papaya, potato, squash, and sugar beet. By 2004, the US was growing 47.6mh, Argentina 16.2mh, Brazil 5mh, Canada 5.4mh, China 3.7mh and India 0.5mh. Ten years later, the US was growing 73.1mh of GM crops, Argentina 24.3mh, Brazil 42.2mh, India and Canada 11.6mh and China 3.9mh.
Over the centuries, countries have stopped producing for domestic and local consumption and have increasingly produced for export: even countries with comparatively high rates of malnutrition and starvation like Brazil, China, and India. Agriculture and agribusiness-related industries are worth about $830 billion per annum to the US, or 4.8 percent of US GDP.
Farm output accounts for $177bn or 1 percent of GDP. Agricultural exports amount to over $130bn per annum. The 2 million farmers in the US farm 922 million acres.
In terms of millions of tonnes per year (mt), the US mainly produces corn (350mt), cow’s milk (91mt), soybeans (89mt), wheat (58mt), potatoes (20mt), chicken (17mt), tomatoes (12mt), beef (11.7mt) and pig meat (10mt).
Most of this produce is either genetically modified or affected by GMOs. For instance, a British farm conference revealed that 80 percent of animal feedstock (maize and soya beans) is GM. Conor McVeigh representing McDonald’s revealed that the company sells beef products from cows fed with GMOs, noting: “[It is] becoming increasingly difficult to source non-GM feed within our supply chain.”
Biotech also plays a role in what many consider to be corporate neocolonialism.
The transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory published leaked emails from 2014 between US and EU seed trade associations. They reveal behind-the-scenes talks on how to put pro-GMO provisions into “free trade” legislation.
One redacted email from an EU minister discusses their invitation by the US Trade Rep to a meeting with the American Seed Trade Association and the European Seed Association, which have collaborated on a joint Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) paper - TTIP being the “free trade” deal between the US and Europe, which appears to have failed. for the time, at least.
The organizations focused on “priority issues,” namely phytosanitary issues (i.e., plant health), breeding techniques, and “the presence of GMOs in conventional seed.”
In addition to quietly weaving pro-GMO articles into treaty legislation, biotech companies use politicians to sell GMOs as a cure for hunger in poor countries. This agenda is not limited to the right-wing governments now in charge in the US and Britain. Many “liberal” politicians and foundations share their pro-GMO agenda.
Golden Rice is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored Monsanto (Bayer) side line. It is biosynthesized beta-carotene designed to boost vitamin A, the deficiency of which kills an estimated 700,000 children a year.
In 2013, the UK’s Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, described people who oppose GMOs as “absolutely wicked.” Paterson justified his sentiments as follows: “It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology.”
Paterson had nothing to say about the virtuous corporations speculating on food prices, the righteous legislators at the World Trade Organization who deem seed storage a threat to markets, or the moral architects of the globalized economy, which shifts food production from localized subsistence to export.
When former US Secretary of State and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was a lawyer in Arkansas at Rose Law Firm, the company reportedly represented Monsanto. Clinton’s campaign manager for Iowa, Jerry Crawford, was a lobbyist for Monsanto.
GMO producer Dow Chemical gave the Clinton Foundation between $1m and $5m. Monsanto gave the Foundation between $500,000 and $1m.
In 2010, the Obama administration launched Feed the Future, an initiative designed to push US-EU insurance, chemical fertilizers, and genetically-modified foods on poor countries, mostly African. Or, as the website puts it: “Feed the Future agencies work hand-in-hand with partner countries to develop their agriculture sectors and break the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.”
Partner countries include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Senegal, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia—in other words, those with weaker regulations than more “developed” countries. Partner businesses include Monsanto and the insurance giant, Swiss Re. Clinton was Secretary of State at the time.
Clinton understands that the public doesn’t tend to like GMOs. “ ‘Genetically modified’ sounds Frankensteinish. ‘Drought resistance’ sounds really—something you want [sic]. So how do you create a different vocabulary to talk about what it is you’re trying to help people do.”
Clinton said this in 2014, at a paid speaking engagement with the Biotechnology Industry (now Innovation) Organization (BIO). BIO’s members included at least three Monsanto subsidiaries.
Consider Boris Johnson's Clinton-esque language in selling the idea of GMOs to the British: “Let’s start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let’s develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”
And again in the Commons: “We will have the free ports to revitalise our coastal communities, a bio-science sector liberated from anti-genetic modification rules, blight resistant crops that will feed the world, and satellite and earth observation systems that are the envy of the world.”
In conclusion, we must resist Johnson's efforts to deregulate the biotech industry and see through his “progressive” language about “innovation” and ending world hunger.
Dr T. J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute. He is the author of several books, including Human Wrongs (iff Books) and Privatized Planet (New Internationalist).